A man injured when an Anchorage police officer drove through a red light and into his pickup truck has been awarded $375,000 in a civil lawsuit.
The Anchorage jury, however, rejected Melvin Rush’s claim for $2.5 million in punitive damages. Rush’s attorney, Jim Valcarce, told the Anchorage Daily News that the claim was justified because veteran Officer Michael Wisel was distracted as he drove and had a history of poor driving.
“My client is pleased with the result, but we all wish the jury would’ve sent a message of punishment,” Valcarce said. “Because that’s what punitive damages do. You punish someone and make sure it never happens again.”
Rush is an Army pilot and a veteran of three tours in Iraq.
On July 15, 2010, he was driving his month-old truck toward work through an intersection on Boniface Parkway. He testified he saw the patrol car heading toward him without emergency lights lit.
The patrol car T-boned the pickup, striking it near the rear of the driver’s side and pushed it into a light pole. Rush told responding medics that he did not need to go to a hospital but later did so. He suffered bruises on his arm and elsewhere.
Valcarce claimed Wisel, an 11-year veteran, was looking at his computer screen before the crash and the distraction prevented him from seeing the red light. Despite other incidents of distracted driving, Valcarce said, the response by Wisel’s supervisors after crashing into Rush was minimal. Wisel received a verbal reprimand, he said, continuing a department pattern with officers who commit traffic offenses in situations that are not emergencies.
“They do nothing to them. Not a slap on the hand. Nothing,” he said. “That’s why that was so important. Because of that mind set of, ‘I can do whatever I want and nothing’s going to happen to me.”‘
Municipal attorney Sam Severin said at the trial that Rush was owed money but not punitive damages. He said the crash was neither intentional nor reckless.
The city paid medical and truck repairs, Valcarce said, but offered Rush just $27,500 for past and future suffering. Rush would have preferred not to sue, he said.
“He’s embarrassed by the publicity,” Valcarce said. “His family thanks God every day he’s just alive.”
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